Sports betting has become one of the most lucrative businesses but for the moment, there seems no comprehensive licensing and regulatory framework for the industry in Uganda.
The authorities did not anticipate the speed and ferocity with which the ‘scourge’ would eat into the population. As such, with the exception of ad hoc pronouncements here and there, no hard and fast ground rules are in place to regulate the activity.
Sport Betting Africa, the company licensed to provide legal sports betting in Uganda has close to 4,000 points of sales in the capital, Kampala and major towns like Mbale, Gulu, Jinja, Fort Portal, Tororo and Soroti.
And the business continues to attract thousands of fans, some of whom have become addicts.
Joshua Ongodia, 31, of Magara village in Kabarwa sub-county,Bukedea district says he can no longer sleep without placing a bet much as he last won about two months ago.
“This is like my food now, if I cannot find Shs 1000 to place in a bet, then I feel like there is no tomorrow,” Ongodia who won Shs 13,000 in his last lucky bet told PML Daily.
He says he and 30 other boys, many much younger than himself, ride bicycles 14km away to Bukedea town everyday to place their bets.
In Kabarwa, a newly created sub-county in Bukedea district, those who do not have bicycles or simply cannot afford to ride for long distances seek help from boda-boda cyclists.
“I take orders from over 50 boys a day, they give me their pointers and the stake and I go to do the job for them and deliver receipts,” Abubakar Ibirot, a boda-boda motorcyclist at Kabarwa, said.
He says whoever wins gives him at least 15% of the share.
“The largest amount one has won is Shgs 680,000 but that was a one-off and quite long ago now, most of these betters simply ride on hope,”Ibirot revealed adding that even teachers, policemen and shopkeepers are feverishly into betting.
Joseph Otai, Ongodia’s father, is worried about the future of his son who at 31 “does not seem to realise that he is a man.”
“This boy leaves his wife and two children at home early and comes back home late in the night, it is worse at the time when the English premier league is on, he will watch the last match before coming home,”Otai laments.
At 56, the old man still has to feed his son and his wife whom he said should now be helping him educate his sisters and handle other family responsibilities.
Otai, a retired teacher, says Ongodia just like many suffering from gambling addiction, abandoned school.
“He was doing a health sciences course at Kyambogo University on a government quota system scholarship, but my son left school abandoning even his beddings and books. I only discovered that he was with his uncle somewhere in Kampala. He is the one who later intimated to me that the boy had gone crazy with betting,” Otai narrated.
It is this sort of addiction that Zaheer Nathani, the manager of Royal Sports Betting in Mbale, and colleagues relish.
Zaheer told PML Daily that they are spreading their wings to the villages due to increasing demand.
“Our findings show that some of these youth travel long distances to access our services so it’s only wise as a businessman that you also extend services nearer to your clients,” Zaheer enthuses about an activity which has eaten into the country’s young population.
In Uganda, only persons aged 18 years and above are permitted to get involved in gambling, but the sports betting halls around the country, continue to overflow with teenagers as young as 13 years.
According to the Uganda Lotteries and Gaming Board, Ugandans spend over Shs 150 billion in casinos, slot machines, lotteries and betting annually. The Uganda government collects Shs 30 billion in taxes from the games and lottery companies.
But the wider social consequences are devastating.
Moses Olemukan, the Local Council 5 of Bukedea, says that betting has directly affected the productivity of youth in his district.
He said most youth in Bukedea nowadays flock trading centres where they spend hours analysing the fortunes of teams and betting fixtures instead of doing productive work.
“You find them glued to a piece of paper or scrolling through smartphones, and that’s all they do throughout the day.”
Olemukan suggested that some families in the district have been hit by shortage of food because the energetic youth have left farming to their frail old parents or wives yet even if they won money in a bet, in most cases the money is spent recklessly with friends in ‘high life.’
His lament that ordinances made at the district which provide that betting centres should not be opened until midday have not yielded fruit is typical. The betting companies are too powerful to be easily regulated by a mere district council, he fears.
“These betting companies wield a lot of money, they can even bribe councillors to refuse a genuine and helpful law,” Olemukan said, adding that recently he was put on the spot by some of his councillors for fronting a by-law that would ban slot machines in the district.
The government’s position
The Speaker of parliament Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga has recently told Resident District Commissioners and the police to immediately close down betting centres operating in town councils and rural trading centres, saying many are there illegally.
Kadaga said that in rural areas betting operators are not mindful of guidelines set by government.
“These betting centres are taking in gamblers as young as 13 years which is against the laws of this country, we must not tolerate this,” Kadaga said.
Section 57 of the Lotteries and Gaming Act, 2016 stipulates that a betting centre should not allow in a person under the age of 18 years. It reads;
“A licensee or his or her agent who accepts payment from a minor or allows the minor to access or enter a casino or gaming and betting premises, whether personally, by mail, by electronic means or otherwise, a subscription to a public lottery commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding one thousand currency points or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding four years or both,” clause 3 of the section states.
Available evidence, however, shows that this provision of the law is being flagrantly violated
Speaking at Budadiri Health Centre IV grounds in Sironko District where she was presiding over an ambulance donation function on Tuesday, August 8, the Speaker lamented that most betting and gaming companies have set illegal businesses in town councils and trading centres. They are targeting mainly the less informed and ignorant youth.
“This is very bad because these youth struggle to feed and clothe themselves while others are just children who will instead end up stealing the little their parents save for food to keep up with the addictive demands of betting,” Kadaga said.
She said that the laws of Uganda only allow gaming and betting centres to be established in municipalities and cities. The Speaker observed that the potentially productive youth have been turned into idle betters.
“Gambling activity is a huge distraction to the young citizens and those found practicing it should also be arrested except those in municipality and the city,” she said.
Kadaga noted with sadness that the rural betting centres also aid and abet the evasion of taxes becomes gaming companies are hard to monitor when operating in remote locations.
Moses Wamoto, the Sironko RDC, welcomed the idea of closing down these centres saying that his office will draw an action plan to implement the Speaker’s proposal.
In May this year the government moved to manage the effects of the lotteries and gaming industry on the youth by imposing stringent measures while still tapping the easy revenues the industry is spawning.
The regulator announced a slew of regulations, among them the use of a national identity card to enter a gaming house.
Taking it by the horn, the 2017/2018 budget also raised taxes on the industry and recently proposed to tax winnings.
Districts in Teso like Amuria, Katakwi, Serere, Bukedea have, meanwhile, gone one step further and confiscated slot machines, saying they were cheating their youth their hard earned coins.
Edgar Agaba, executive director of the National Lotteries and Gaming Regulatory Board, however told journalists in Kampala in May that the industry’s shift online has presented a regulation challenge.
“Trying to stop gaming is a waste of time,” Agaba said. And he is right: gaming business would simply go underground if attempts to stop it altogether were made.
Agaba said that the government would rather push gaming firms to promote corporate social responsibility programmes so that Ugandans directly benefit from the easy money they reap.
He described as a necessary evil the 35 per cent tax and the employment of at least 5,000 people in nine gaming companies.
About 400 online gaming companies are accessible to Ugandan punters.
Separately, there is concern that gambling could be used to launder money.
“We are going to work with the Financial Intelligence Authority to see how to track this,” Agaba said.
The regulations set a minimum age of 25 years for anyone going into gambling premises and the government wants this strictly enforced.
“Any operator of those gaming sites, both online and land-based, risks having their licences revoked or suspended if found permitting under 25 to gamble. Culprits face up to two years in jail or a fine of Shs 1 million ($285.7),” he said.